In deadly Maui wildfires, communication failed. Chaos overtook Lahaina along with the flames

APTOPIX Hawaii Fires
Posted at 10:58 AM, Aug 12, 2023

WAILUKU, Hawaii — In the hours before a wildfire engulfed the town of Lahaina, Maui County officials failed to activate sirens that would have warned the entire population of the approaching flames and instead relied on a series of sometimes confusing social media posts that reached a much smaller audience.

Power and cellular outages for residents further stymied communication efforts. Radio reports were scarce, some survivors reported, even as the blaze began to consume the town. Road blocks then forced fleeing drivers onto one narrow downtown street, creating a bottleneck that was quickly surrounded by flames on all sides. At least 80 people have been confirmed dead so far.

APTOPIX Hawaii-Fires
A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii late Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. Thousands of residents raced to escape homes on Maui as blazes swept across the island, destroying parts of a centuries-old town in one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in recent years. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)

The silent sirens have raised questions about whether everything was done to alert the public in a state that possesses an elaborate emergency warning system for a variety of dangers including wars, volcanoes, hurricanes and wildfires.

Hector Bermudez left his apartment at Lahaina Shores shortly after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday after the smell of smoke woke him up from a nap. He asked his neighbor if he was also leaving.

“He said, ‘No, I am waiting for the authorities to see what they are going to do,’” Bermudez recounted. “And I said, ‘No, no no, please go. This smoke is going to kill us. You have to go. Please. You gotta get out of here. Don’t wait for nobody.'”

His neighbor, who is about 70 and has difficulty walking, refused.

Bermudez doesn't know if he survived.

Officials with Maui’s Emergency Management Agency did not immediately respond Friday to questions about sirens and other communications issues.

Hawaii’s Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office will be conducting a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies surrounding the wildfires.

“My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review," she said in a statement Friday, adding that "now is the time to begin this process of understanding."

The Associated Press created a timeline of the wildfires, using information from multiple sources including the county’s announcements, state and local Emergency Management Alerts and interviews with officials and survivors.

The timeline shows public updates on the fires were spotty and often vague, and much of the county’s attention was focused on another dangerous, larger fire in Upcountry Maui that was threatening neighborhoods in Kula. It shows no indication that county officials ever activated the region's all-hazard siren system, and reveals other emergency alerts were scarce.

In the hours before the wildfires began, however, warnings about high winds were frequent and widely disseminated by the county and other agencies. A hurricane passing far to the south was expected to bring gusts of up to 65 mph (105 kph), residents were told on Monday.

The Upcountry fire started first, reported not long after midnight on Tuesday, and the first evacuations near Kula followed.

The fire near Lahaina started later, around 6:37 a.m. Tuesday. Some homes in Lahaina's most inland neighborhood were evacuated, but by 9:55 a.m. the county reported that the fire was fully contained. Still, the announcement included another warning that high winds would remain a concern for the next 24 hours.

The power also went out early that morning, leaving several thousand customers in the Lahaina/West Maui region and Upcountry without electricity. Several downed power lines required repair.

By 11 a.m., firefighting crews from several towns and the Hawaii Department of Lands had converged on the Upcountry fire, but wind gusts reaching 80 mph (129 kph) made conditions unsafe for helicopters. At 3:20 p.m., more Upcountry neighborhoods were evacuated.

The Lahaina fire, meanwhile, had escaped containment and forced the closure of the Lahaina Bypass road by 3:30 p.m. The announcement, however, didn't make it into a county fire update until 4:45 p.m. and didn't show up on the county Facebook page until nearly 5 p.m., when survivors say flames were surrounding the cars of families trapped downtown.

But while the Lahaina fire was spreading, Maui County and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials were making other urgent announcements — including a Facebook post about additional evacuations near the Upcountry fire and an announcement that the acting governor had issued an emergency proclamation.

In the Upcountry evacuation Facebook post at 3:20 p.m., Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea shared an ominous warning.

“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” Giesea said.

Mike Cicchino lived below the Lahaina Bypass in one of Lahaina's more inland neighborhoods. He went to his house at 3:30 p.m. and minutes later realized his neighborhood was quickly being enveloped by flames.

He yelled to the neighbor kids to get their mom and leave. He ran inside to collect his wife and the dogs they were watching. Cicchino, along with others in the neighborhood, then jumped in their cars to leave. He listened for announcements on his car radio, but said there was essentially no information.

The government's social media attention turned from Upcountry back to Lahaina at 4:29 p.m., when Hawaii EMA posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the local Maui EMA had announced an immediate evacuation for an inland subdivision in Lahaina. Residents were directed to shelter at the Lahaina Civic Center on the north side of town.

Just before 5 p.m., Maui County shared a new Lahaina fire report on Facebook: “Flareup forces Lahaina Bypass road closure; shelter in place encouraged."

Many were already running from the flames. Lynn Robison evacuated from her apartment near the waterfront's Front Street at 4:33 p.m.

"There was no warning. There was absolutely none. Nobody came around. We didn’t see a fire truck or anybody,” Robison said.

Lana Vierra left her neighborhood about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) away around the same time. Her boyfriend had stopped by and told her he'd seen the approaching fire on the drive.

“He told me straight, ‘People are going to die in this town; you gotta get out,’” she recalled. There had been no sirens, no alerts on her cellphone, she said.

But access to the main highway — the only road leading in and out of Lahaina — was cut off by barricades set up by authorities. The roadblocks forced people directly into harm's way, funneling cars onto Front Street.

“All the locals were pigeonholed into Lahaina in that corner there, and I felt like the county put us into a death trap,” Cicchino said.

Nathan Baird and his family escaped by driving past a barricade, he told Canadian Broadcaster CBC Radio.

“Traffic was all over the place. Nobody knew where to go. They were trying to make everybody go up to the Civic Center and ... it just didn’t make sense to me,” Baird said. “I was so confused. At first, I was like, ‘Why are all these people driving towards the fire?’”

Cicchino and his wife became trapped by walls of flame as Front Street burned. They ran for the ocean, spending hours crouching behind the sea wall or treading water in the choppy waves, depending on which area felt safest as the ever-changing fire raged.

At 5:20 p.m., Maui County shared another Lahaina fire update on Facebook: Evacuations in one subdivision were continuing, but access to the main highway was back open.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s first notification about the fires was when the search and rescue command center in Honolulu received reports of people in the water near Lahaina at 5:45 p.m., said Capt. Aja Kirksy, commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu.

The boats were hard to see because of the smoke, but Cicchino and others used cellphones to flash lights at the vessels, guiding them in.

Cicchino helped load children into the Coast Guard boats, and at one point loaned his cellphone — which had been stashed in his wife's waterproof pouch — to a member of the guard so they could contact fire crews. He said the rescue took hours, and he and his wife were finally brought out of Lahaina around 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Maui County Facebook posts around 8:40 p.m. Tuesday urged residents in the surrounding area who weren't impacted by the fires to shelter in place, and said smoke was forcing more road closures. A commenter pointed out the communication problems just before 9 p.m. “You do realize that all communication to Lahaina is cut off and nobody can get in touch with anyone on that side,” the commenter wrote.

Riley Curran, who fled his Lahaina home after climbing up a neighboring apartment building to get a better look at the fire, doesn’t think there is anything the county could have done.

“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything. It’s that it was so fast no one had time to do anything,“ Curran said. “The fire went from 0 to 100.”

But Cicchino said it all felt like the county wasn't prepared and government agencies weren't communicating with each other.

“I feel like the county really cost a lot of peoples' lives and homes that day. I felt like a lot of this could have been prevented if they just thought about this stuff in the morning, and took their precaution,” he said. “You live in a fire zone. They have a lot of fires. You need to prepare for fires.”

The all-hazard sirens are tested each month to ensure they are in working order. During the most recent test, Aug. 1, they malfunctioned in three separate incidents in three counties. Maui's siren tone was too short, so officials repeated the test later that day, successfully.

Karl Kim directs the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, a University of Hawaii-based organization that develops training materials to help officials respond to natural disasters.

Kim said it's too soon to know exactly how the warning and alert system might have saved more lives in Lahaina, and noted that wildfires are often more challenging to manage than volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and even earthquakes because they are more difficult to detect and track over time.

“I think it’s a wake-up call,” he said. “We have to invest more in understanding of wildfires and the threats that they provide, which aren’t as well understood.”